The true test of physical beauty in a man or a woman lies in their eyes and what happens to their eyes as they advance in age. Time will lay its ugly hand on jaw-lines, arms, legs, and even noses (look at a photograph of Gloria Swanson in 1917, then one from 1960 or so, and see what years can do to a beautiful nose). Surely no one had a more sensual mouth than Farley Granger in his youth; when I saw him selling his memoir last year, there was no vestige of this mouth left: a sour, pursed elderly lady mouth had taken its place.
Toward the beginning of the new documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story, about the enduring romance between writer Christopher Isherwood and his much younger lover, portrait artist Don Bachardy, there is home movie footage of them around the time that they met. Bachardy is 18 years old, an impish, gap-toothed Sal Mineo, and Isherwood is close to 50, his face lined, but his youthful spirit intact. Photos of a young Isherwood show his smooth-skinned pulchritude, but he’s almost too luscious; like Cary Grant, he needed a bit of age to really come into his own physically. In his eighties, Isherwood was still beautiful, just as the bird-like Bachardy is still beautiful today in his seventies. This physical beauty comes right from their eyes, which have learned to see as much as they possibly can.
The trick of enduring physical beauty, I suppose, is never to retreat from life, because any retreat of any kind will show up in the eyes. As artists, and as a couple, Isherwood and Bachardy always scrupulously looked outside of themselves, especially when their work was most autobiographical. Isherwood’s greatest achievements as a writer, Prater Violet, Down There on a Visit and A Single Man, are ruthlessly lucid accounts of his own existence as a former bright young thing and a bright, sexy older man of letters. He lays himself so bare in these books, in such specific detail, that the effect opens out into a sort of cosmic meditation on vanity and death while never losing sight of life’s worldly pleasures. To read Isherwood is to fall in love with him; his aim is to seduce with his candor. You feel he was equally at home having tea with Virginia Woolf as he was throwing a few back with Lauren Bacall, and that’s because he was intoxicatingly greedy: he wanted it all, and he had it all. He wants you, too, and he’ll have you, if you read him. Isherwood is the gay Guru of the twentieth century, and we are all his disciples.
At the end of a long and sometimes wearying series of relationships, the supposedly middle-aged Isherwood saw and was moved by Bachardy, and Bachardy still seems thrilled that The Great Seducer wanted him for keeps. The symbiosis they achieved as a famous Hollywood couple is documented both visually and aurally in Chris & Don. Bachardy speaks with a decided English accent, complete with upper class stammer, even though he was born and raised in California. Footage of an early seventies interview with Isherwood lets us see just how exact the vocal merging was: they sound just like each other. Bachardy also contrived to catch up to Isherwood physically, leaping right from his adorable boyhood to a potent, mustached, white-haired middle age in a matter of what looks like a few years time. There might be something creepy about this if Bachardy didn’t make it so abundantly clear how willing he was to be devoured and made over new; the story of their relationship is so convincingly romantic, finally, that it cannot help but serve as an example to everyone looking to get lost and find themselves in another person’s eyes and arms.
Chris & Don, which was directed for almost no money by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, is a charming introduction to the work and life of these pioneering artists, burnished by animated interludes that flesh out their lifelong fantasy roles as a dogged horse and an inquisitive kitty. We see Bachardy at work in their shared house in Santa Monica, doing sittings with models and friends practically every day. I’ve sat for Bachardy twice, and the experience of being looked at so closely by his fierce eyes is something that can truly be called a life-changing experience. Bachardy wants to get a good physical likeness of his sitters, of course, but the physical always leads him swiftly down the darker corridor of the psychological. In the eight portraits he did of me, my eyes bulge with alien-strangeness, my face goes slack with blubbery despair, then tightens up into a startling kind of animal sexuality. He is after the secrets you carry in your mouth, your hair, your forehead. And in his writings on his subjects, especially in his book Stars in My Eyes, Bachardy goes even further than Isherwood into furiously minute, hungry analysis of the film stars who sat for him. In that book, he is trying to extract meaning from the smallest detail, as we all do when we meet a well-known actor, but Bachardy enlarges this instinct, with the considerable help of his almost savage drawings, so that his laser-like analytical impulses are life-affirming rather than destructive.
Chris and Don were a glamorous couple, in the best possible sense. They had their fun, and on a grand scale, but the parties and drinking and sex acted as a necessary relaxation for their real work at the typewriter and the canvas. They wrote screenplays together, including a daring version of Frankenstein that was made for TV in the early 70’s in which Michael Sarrazin’s dishy then deformed monster is a kind of Trick Who Won’t Leave. When Isherwood was dying, Bachardy spent every day drawing him, and even drew his corpse. In this documentary, Bachardy has to use all his self-composure to talk about this, but the toughness that allowed him to dare these death drawings is the same toughness he draws upon to hold back tears as he talks about the experience. In the abstract, drawing a corpse is ghoulish, but it’s instructive to take as a counter-example Annie Leibovitz’s recently published photographs of a dying Susan Sontag, which fail miserably in the same perilous arena where Bachardy’s drawings of Isherwood succeed. There are several reasons for that; to be fair, a photograph is very different from a drawing, less distanced. But it is not unfair to bring up the fact that Sontag and Leibovitz led a closeted life, many years after Isherwood and Bachardy had blazed a trail forward in that regard. Leibovitz’s failure is both personal and professional: she is overcompensating now, horribly, for their lifelong silence, whereas Bachardy had long since earned the right to be open about anything, including the death of his great love, because he had been courageously open all his life.
There are many reasons to see Chris & Don, but the best one I can think of is the chance to see Isherwood and his best friend W.H. Auden, probably the greatest poet of the twentieth century, jumping around together like middle-aged schoolboys in beguiling home movie footage. There is the opportunity to hear Bachardy hold forth about a scary drug experience with Paul Bowles in Tangier, and some hilarious anecdotes about visiting the set and working as an extra on The Rose Tattoo with Anna Magnani. But mainly this is a chance to get acquainted with the exemplary work and life of two great artists, one dead, one living, utterly and touchingly and romantically indivisible.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.